Appearing on Meet the Press Sunday, Barack Obama tried to undo the spin that his campaign trotted out in response to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Host Tim Russert cited a Washington Post editorial that accused Obama of committing “an ugly foul” in trying to connect Pakistan’s instability to Hillary Clinton’s vote on the Iraq war.
Then Mr. Obama committed his foul — a far-fetched attempt to connect the killing of Ms. Bhutto with Ms. Clinton’s vote on the war in Iraq. After the candidate made the debatable assertion that the Iraq invasion strengthened al-Qaeda in Pakistan, his spokesman, David Axelrod, said Ms. Clinton “was a strong supporter of the war in Iraq, which we would submit was one of the reasons why we were diverted from Afghanistan, Pakistan and al-Qaeda, who may have been players in the event today.”
Obama cites the NIE in his defense, so it’s worth pointing out that past NIEs have said Iraq was pursuing WMDs and that Iran was and then wasn’t actively pursuing nuclear weapons. If you’re going to appeal to an authority to back your case, you’re leaving yourself open to criticism that your appeals are entirely opportunistic if you don’t also take into account times when the authority hasn’t agreed with you. And past NIEs often haven’t agreed with Obama’s take on the world, or even with each other.
But more broadly, Obama denies that his campaign’s Pakistan line wasn’t an attempt to draw a causal line between Iraq and Pakistan. That just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny at all.
“Those who made the judgment that we ought to divert our attention from Afghanistan to invade Iraq and allow al-Qaeda to reconstitute and strengthen are now having to assess the wisdom of that judgment as we may be seeing yet another manifestation of al-Qaeda’s potency,” said Susan Rice, a top Obama foreign policy advisor who was an assistant secretary of State in the Clinton administration, in an interview with Politico.
She said Pakistan illustrates a difference between Obama and Clinton’s approaches to foreign policy. Clinton, in Rice’s view, is willing to tolerate authoritarian regimes – in this case the government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf – who might be useful to short-term U.S. goals. Obama, on the other hand, seeks a diplomacy that sees values and human rights than traditional realpolitik.
“Senator Clinton’s view has been closer to Bush’s, which is to see Musharraf as the linchpin but democracy as something that is desirable, but not necessarily essential to our security interests,” said Rice, “Whereas Obama feels that democracy and human rights in the context of Pakistan are essential to our security.”
Not only did Obama’s campaign draw a causal line between Iraq and Pakistan, they also misread the source of Pakistan’s present instability. It’s not solely the lack of democracy that’s feeding Pakistan’s internal problems, it’s the growing jihadist movement that demanded and won space in Waziristan, ramped up Islamist opposition from its HQ at the Red Mosque until Musharraf ordered troops to drive them out, and fuels the war in Afghanistan to this day. The fact is, since the 1990s Pakistan has exported Islamist terrorism to Afghanistan and Chechnya and nearly anyplace else jihad was pursued, and Pakistan’s democratically elected Prime Ministers Bhutto and Sharif were worse about this than Musharraf has been. That particular chicken has come home to roost.
Pakistan’s problems are complex and long predate the war in Iraq. Obama dishonestly oversimplifies them to make an unconvincing point about the war he didn’t support that ousted a non-democratic tyrant he would have left in place.
More: As weird as this is, with Obama’s nonsensical linkage to Iraq and Hillary’s flubbing major details of her “dear friend” Bhutto’s life, John Edwards comes out of this so far looking like the most presidential of the big three on the Democrat side. He wins by not saying anything terribly stupid, and unless his phone call to Mushy turns out not to have happened (or if it turns out he was just talking to Musharraf’s answering machine or something like that), he comes out not having said anything obviously idiotic or obviously dishonest. He didn’t do any particular good, but he also didn’t do any particular harm, which is about all we can reasonably expect from the Dems these days.
More: A great book on the subject, tangentially, of Pakistan’s exporting of jihad far and wide is Youssef Bodansky’s Chechen Jihad. I’m reading it now and it’s nightmarish.